Jack Kirby’s Collages in Context

Jack Kirby had choices to make, especially considering he could do it all: writing, penciling, inking, coloring. Along the way he found it prudent to concentrate on what he could do best: dream big and render those flights of fancy in graphite. Why then would he choose to break his stride and search through various magazines in search of the right image, rubber cement in hand?

Kirby’s entrée into the world of collage did not begin with the Fantastic Four, or even by his own hand. Richard Hamilton included a (Simon &) Kirby Young Romance splash page in his seminal 1956 collage “Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” launching both Pop Art and Kirby into the fine art world.  “High” culture had begun to give sway to pop culture through the most democratic of visual art forms, collage.

“Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?” by Richard Hamilton, 1956.

Pablo Picasso, “Compotier avec fruits, violon et verre”, 1912

Rodchenko, Russian Constructivism

Kurt Schwitter, Bauhaus

Hannah Hock, Raoul Hausmann, Dada

Hannah Hock, Raoul Hausmann, Dada

Max Ernst, Surrealism

Henri Matisse, “Nuotatore in Auquario” from “Jazz,” 1947

True its origins could be traced back to ancient Japan, and examples exist during the thirteenth century in Persia, spreading to Turkey and eventually Europe by the 1600s. The modern version that first captured the public’s attention was created in 1912, when Pablo Picasso glued newspaper clippings into a Cubist painting. The artist’s and general public’s fascination with collage had begun. Artists of the Russian Constructivist, Bauhaus, Dada and Surrealist movements pushed the form further. When Henri Matisse’s eyesight began to fail, he turned to cut paper collage, producing “Jazz,” celebrating the other 20th century art form that employed improvisation and spontaneity as a main ingredient. During the Abstract Impression movement of the 1950s Rauschenberg, Reinhart and Motherwell explored the medium further.

Robert Rauschenberg, 1963.

Artists more widely known for their other talents, such as William S. Burroughs, John Cage and Louis Armstrong all created collage. In comics, the ever-inventive Will Eisner employed the technique in The Spirit in “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” in 1948. However this featured a single aerial cityscape with drawn figures and captions on top, to connote flight, rather than fully realized collaged elements. If anything, as dramatic as the effect was, this could be seen as a shortcut on the part of the artist, as much time was saved rendering architecture. Never one to take the easy way out, Jack Kirby was the first in comics to utilize collage as entirely something new and explore its full potential, despite the crude printing techniques of the time.

William Burroughs

Louis Armstrong

Beginning in 1964 with the Fantastic Four, Kirby created collages to convey fanciful scenes of cosmic dimensions. These early comic collages were used to further the storytelling and appear to be created concurrently. However, according to former assistant and Kirby biographer Mark Evanier, by the 1970s Kirby would often create collages from his collection of photographic magazines such as National Geographic and Life, whenever the mood struck him, and make good use of them at a later date. Considering that he was one of the fastest artists in comics, and worked upward of 70 to 80 hours a week at the drawing board during this period, why would Kirby slow himself down to create a collage, which no doubt was more time consuming? Scissors, exacto knife, and rubber cement were no match for the lightening speed of his hand. It is yet additional evidence of Kirby’s unbridled creativity and imagination, as well as the compulsive need to create at all costs, spending time composing these collages in what little spare time he had. Similarly, Louis Armstrong somehow found time to create over 500 collages while touring 300 plus dates around the world.

Will Eisner “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” from The Spirit, 1948

Despite the rudimentary printing of the time, these early collages captured the imagination of many of my generation. Somehow we were able to see past the murkiness and peer into a universe we hadn’t experienced before. At the dawn of the space age, along with Sputnik, the Mercury flights and high-powered telescopes, we were able to view galaxies heretofore unimaginable. Reportedly, it was Kirby’s intention to render the entire Negative Zone storyline in the Fantastic Four in collage, a pursuit he abandoned due to his page rate, the speed of his pencil and the printed result. Still, he would continue with this new passion through the 1970s, carrying the technique over to DC. Kirby’s Fourth World comics featured myriad collages, and significantly he began to create even more sophisticated works for his intended new line of magazines, Spirit World and In The Days of the Mob, both originally planned as four-color publications.  Removed from sequential storytelling and employed rather as illustration, these collages stand on their own as singular works of art. Kirby was so passionate about this art-form, that when he was asked if they should bring anything, he would request visitors to his home bring periodicals as fodder for his collages. Louis Armstrong did likewise.

Interior collage from Fantastic Four # 29, 1964

Fantastic Four #32, 1964

Fantastic Four # 33 featured Kirby’s collages on the cover and interior.

A further series of Kirby’s Fantastic Four collages:

Fantastic Four #37, 1965

Fantastic Four #48, 1966

Fantastic Four #51, 1966

Fantastic Four #62, 1967

The Fantastic Four Annual #6, 1968. Notice the margin note in Kirby’s handwriting for FF #51: “It is both weird and beautiful.”

Kirby in comics, and Pushpin studios in advertising in the 1960s presented impressionable young minds with vibrant and exuberant visual art that influenced the psychedelic art movement soon to follow. Significantly, psychedelic artists such as Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse and Wes Wilson all used collage in their work. As author James Romberger pointed out in his article “Undiscovered Particles” in the Jack Kirby Quarterly issue  #15, a Merry Prankster poster heralding an acid test, replete with music provided by the Grateful Dead, featured Kirby’s Thor upfront, center.

Kirby’s interest in collage was so keen that in the early 70s he desired to create fumetti comics, comprised entirely of photographs with captions, but could receive no support from DC. Ever ahead of his time, these became popular at the end of the decade in the United States with comic adaptations of films such as Star Trek, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Rocky II, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Battlestar Galactica, although the medium had been popular prior in France, Spain and Latin America.

Kirby’s comics collages influenced others: “The New People”, Dell, 1970

Kirby’s infatuation for collage reached its zenith during this period. Spirit World in particular reveals his passion for the medium (pun intended). In a 50-page publication (including front, back and inside covers) a total of 13 pages are given over to partial or full page collages incorporated throughout, including a 16” x 21” tipped-in folded poster. This includes the fumetti “Children of the Flaming Wheel” which features as models friends of assistants Steven Sherman and Evanier in a 3-page story, with Sherman as photographer. Originally intended by Kirby to be printed in color, he wisely chose monochromatic colors of blue and purple for maximum effect.

Soul Poster , which was folded and tipped into the issue of Spirit World. Both magazines were canceled after only one issue each.

The poster is worthy of closer examination. Entitled “SOULS” it is composed in a clockwise manner, with large, eyeless heads leading the viewer in a circular motion, with smaller figures punctuating the spaces between. A disembodied eye floats below a half obscured castle, four headless women walk single file in Victorian era gowns, ghostly figures peer out from three windows, and a drawn nude male figure, back to the viewer, merges with a large rock formation. All this is printed in a single color, purple, which adds to the intended eeriness. What is interesting is the variation in tonality that creates the illusion of foreground and background. Considering the source is all found material, one gets a glimpse into how carefully constructed these collages are. Although rhythmic, Kirby’s approach to collage appears to have been careful consideration as opposed to unfettered spontaneity.

In 1970 Kirby moved from Marvel to DC. He employed the same collage techniques to his run there. Including this one: Metron presentation collage, 1969

The cover of New Gods #3

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen collage, 1971

Below, Kirby created two magazines, Spirit World and In The Days of the Mob, original intended to be printed in four color throughout. After the Publisher DC reneged he had to reconfigure both as single color interiors with only four-color covers.

Kirby’s collages have little in common with Cubism or Dadaism in execution, such as those by Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray or Kurt Schwitters, but the affect of Surrealism is in clear evidence. Following the staid 1950s (at least by popular perception) the 1960s saw a return to the dreamlike qualities of Surrealism both through mainstream culture through advertising and counter-culture imagery as well. Perhaps Kirby’s collages come closest to the work of courageous anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield, whose pointed political work were intended not only to be responded to viscerally but also told a story. Then again, there are Kirby collages in existence where the original motivation remains mysterious.

When Kirby returned to Marvel in 1975 he continued the practice, here for his adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

John Heartfield, 1935.

Unfortunately the origins of Kirby’s interest in collage are unknown. Conceivably his awareness did indeed begin with his inclusion in Hamilton’s groundbreaking piece. Certainly artists such as Picasso and Matisse were household names during his early years. What these works do provide is yet another glimpse into the mind and genius of Jack Kirby, the cosmic imagination that tirelessly explored new areas of creativity and expression, with the singularity, passion and inventiveness only an artist of his stature could bring. Today, thanks to improved technology, both digital and printed, we can view his collages closer to the spirit in which they were created.

Below: miscellaneous Kirby collages that have never been published.

©2012 Steven Brower

Also by Steven Brower for Imprint: You Can’t Judge a Jack Kirby Book By its Cover

Steven Brower is a graphic designer, writer and educator and the former Creative Director/ Art Director of Print.  He is the author/designer of books on Louis Armstrong, Mort Meskin, Woody Guthrie and the history of mass-market paperbacks. He is Director of the “Get Your Masters with the Masters” low residency MFA program for educators and working professionals at Marywood University in Scranton, PA. @stevenianbrower

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25 thoughts on “Jack Kirby’s Collages in Context

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  5. Kip W

    Another great collage artist, and one who was in pretty early with the markings of what we would end up calling “Pop Art,” would be Jess [aka Jess Collins, but he dropped the surname], whose meticulous deconstructions of Dick Tracy strips <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/kipw/sets/72157622344124251/with/6814802918/”>(“Tricky Cad”)</a> still look like state of the art despite having been made by cutting and pasting cheap newsprint with sharp blades and rubber cement.

  6. christopher kosek

    Excellent article that really paints a nice picture of the importance of this under-appreciated “fad” in comics that Kirby was a pioneer of. The rendering of the negative zone as collage was such a cool concept, its too bad he had to abandon it. I also find it so interesting with all the digital tools available to us today and the ability to basically create “digital magic” on the page, its still really difficult to replicate the soul and immediacy of this type of analog collage work. You just can’t photoshop this stuff and have it work the same. 

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  8. Steven Brower

    James, as much as I like Bearden it would be difficult to add him to the timeline as his earliest collages were the same year that Kirby published his (1964) so I am doubtful he was an influence. Bearden is often cited as an influence on Armstrong’s collages, but this too couldn’t be as Louis’ collages predated his by at least a decade.

  9. patrick ford

    Steve, Kirby never (or almost never) applied the character drawings to his collage work. The original you show above with the foreground figure is owned by Glen Gold and he made up a copy of the figure and applied it to the artwork. That’s the difference between Jack Kirby the artist, and Glen the comics fan. 
    Mark Evanier explains the process:
    “Jack drew any figures on a separate page, the inker inked them on that page and then the production department took a stat of the figures and pasted that stat into a screened stat of the collage…they were never on the original.”

  10. James Cassara

    Nice article, but any piece on collages should at least mention Romare Bearden.  He took the form to a higher and more interesting level than any contemporary artist.

  11. Rex Harrison

    Excellent article! I hadn’t realised Jack had created so many collages. The first one I ever saw was the pic of Reed Richards in the Negative Zone, then, in Thor, of Ego the living planet. I was quite young at the time and being confronted by these amazing creations was quite a jolt; and an inspiration – soon I was making collages/montages of my own! In their own way, they are a very relaxing way to create art because you have to slow down and concentrate otherwise you’ll mess them up! They’re also addictive, which may explain why Kirby began to turn out so many.
    There is another aspect to Jack Kirby’s work that I’m interested in that has not been brought up, to my knowledge: the influences of fine art, in particular German Expressionism (dynamism, raw emotion, grotesque exaggeration, bold line work) and Art Nouveau and Art Deco (flowing, interweaving lines, pattern design, fluid composition, mechanical design). It would be interesting to know if Jack consciously drew on these influences or whether he unconsciously absorbed them.

  12. Richard Bensam

    Wonderful piece on one of my favorite topics, but I’m afraid two of your three “unpublished” collages were in fact published.  The first is from Fantastic Four issue 39, page 4 (it’s Reed Richards’ lab) and the last is from Kamandi issue 9, pages 2 and 3 (the floating Earth is Tracking Site, home of Ben Boxer).

  13. Joseph

    Thanks for the eye-opening examination of this side of Kirby. As great a comic artist as he was, it’s exciting to find other facets of his artistry. Kirby is a reknown figure of depth and this story helps contextaulize another layer.

  14. Steve Cohen

    excellent and thought-provoking article, Steven, a great glimpse into what made Jack Kirby Jack Kirby. i especially enjoyed the unpublished collages.

  15. BlowinInTheWind

    Facinating article, i liked the background and historical perspective re collage work and influences in his life as well as the look-see in to the mind of Jack Kirby employing this time honored tecchnique of making art come “alive” as it were. Am one of those consummate fans of the mans’s collective work though by no means a mindless “zombie” unable to see past such in to the wider world of comic art of which Jack was one of its most fantastic participants. The challenges faced with taking seemingly disparate images and make them work together remains just that, challenging. Yet another facet of the man’s genius inside art.

  16. Paper Acrobat

    Kirbys comic illustrations are some of the best ever made, but I’m glad you also talk about his inspiration. For me, Matisses cutouts were a defining moment in art, and Hannah hocks collages were particularly important.

  17. Robert Steibel

    Great article, Steven. 
    One interesting thing to consider about Jack’s collage-work is that a lot of the images he used for his collages might have been from his swipe files — so a few of those individual images may have been 10 or 20 years old when he used them. Jack also could have use some images from current science magazines, or from sources like the Martin Goodman published magazines from the 1960s. A lot of Jack’s 70s stuff for In The Days of the Mob and Spirit World was probably from the Goodman magazines. Here’s a great quote from Steve Sherman at Kirby Dynamics:
    Steve Sherman: “Jack had quite a collection of magazines from the mid-60′s. Mostly Martin Goodman’s cheap black and white ‘adult’ magazines that I guess Jack got for free. He once gave my brother Gary a stack of old Stag and Men’s whatever mags that had been cut-up. He also had some old picture books that he would also use.”

  18. Charles Hatfield

    Thank you for this illuminating, and generously illustrated, article. The topic of Kirby’s collage work deserves deeper study, so I’m glad to see an article pointing people in that direction—and placing Kirby’s collages in the wider art-historical context!
    In particular, I think the exploration of connections between Kirby and Surrealism is well warranted. I also find it fruitful to explore Kirby’s collages in light of his interests in science fiction, popular futurism, and the sublime. Kirby’s use of found imagery pays homage to, but also subverts, the utopianism of popular science and pulp SF, and captures the dreamlike qualities of early to mid-20th century magazine culture. (I note that Hamilton’s “…Today’s Homes” taps into and spoofs that same utopian vibe, though in that case needling the absurb promises of consumerism too.)
    Good stuff!